In the beginning was the Mother; Excerpt from Madhurika K Maheshwari’s ‘Indrani; Demon’s Daughter, Queen of Gods’
Madhurika K Maheshwari’s book on Indrani, the queen of the gods, examines the importance of the mother goddess. An excerptUpdated: Apr 01, 2017 00:21 IST
The summer had been short that year and winter was setting in, in this north western border of the undivided Indian sub-continent. A handful of archeologists and their team members were preparing to resume their excavation – an excavation that was destined to become one of the largest ever undertaken by any human being! But, of course, at the time they had no idea that they were on the verge of making history. Actually just a year before, in 1921, Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni, first Indian Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), had launched an excavation in Harappa (now in Punjab, Pakistan) which brought to light priceless finds such as inscribed seals of the Chalcolithic Age and terracotta figurines.
Now in 1922, about 400 miles away in Mohenjo-daro (in Sindh, now in Pakistan), the group of archaeologists led by ASI’s RD Banerji, seeking to uncover Buddhist structures, laid bare instead the prehistoric remains of one of the oldest civilizations in the world! Later on MS Vats, KN Dikshit, carried on the task. Excavations of the Indus Valley sites continued over five years initially – and indeed, continue to this day. (John Marshall 1931: V).
Today the entire world knows of the Indus Valley Civilisation as it came to be known, stretching between the banks of the mighty rivers, the Indus, the Nakura and the Saraswati. The excavated sites together spread over an area of over a million square kilometers. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were its two most important cities.
One of the major finds in Mohenjo-Daro was several seals, very similar to those discovered in Harappa. Some of these Harappan seals depict female figures in an advanced state of pregnancy, or holding children in their arms (John Marshall 1931:49).
These terracotta figurines speak for the artistic ability of the Indus Valley craftsmen. What’s more, against all odds, these sturdy baked statuettes have survived over millennia. According to Marshall, they were some sort of votive offerings. Which particular deities the female figures represent is still not fully clear though, according to him, they are goddesses with attributes akin to those of the Mother Goddess.
Another possibility is that the figurines may have been patron goddesses enshrined in the houses of womenfolk of that era. Some describe them as fertility figures, others as funerary effigies. Till the Indus Valley script is deciphered, it will remain a matter of conjecture but most scholars seem to agree that they represent a goddess cult with underlying themes of fertility and femininity (Irene N Gajjar 1971:42)...
Makings of a Mother
Most Indus Valley figures of the goddess are more or less similar in appearance. They are depicted standing, almost naked, with slim waists and wide hips (believed to make delivering children a comparatively easier task) and wearing a girdle. For some, the mekhala or girdle signifies fertility while, according to the Atharva Veda, it is a charm to ensure long life. The goddesses wear elaborate headdresses, collars round their necks, and occasionally long necklaces and earrings (Marshall 1931:49). The elaborate jewellery and headdress signifies that they were revered and considered sacred, and the fact that they were considerably better-made than other terracotta figures also shows their higher status (Marshall 1931:339)...
In the early Vedic period (1500-600 BCE), the Earth was considered the mother and humans her children (John Marshall 1931:52). Lajja Gauri was an Earth Goddess who was portrayed nude – she was the yoni personified. Originally she was shown headless but at times a lotus, or a rectangular, triangular or brick shape was shown in place of her head. She developed in four stages: First, she was portrayed in the shape of a pot in uttanpada (supine) posture, the pot being a symbol of the womb. In the second and third stages she was lotus-headed without and with arms, while the final stage was an anthropomorphic form, in which you see her sit frog-style with legs raised and spaced wide apart. The icons of Lajja Gauri are found all over India.
Even before Lajja Gauri, there was Bhima Devi. The Mahabharata (4th Century BCE), the Markandeya Purana (9th-10th century) and some of the Chinese pilgrims refer to her. Her temple was located at Munja Parvat near Shabazgarhi in Peshawar Valley. Many seals, coins and copper plates found in the vicinity testify to this place being the seat of the goddess.
According to the Markandeya Purana, the dwelling place of Bhima Devi is a huge cave (a mahaguha) in Himavant Mountain. An inscription on a copper plate found in the area says that the cave is the place where Bhima (now merged with Lajja Gauri) resides (Madhurika Maheshwari 2009: 29-31).
As the Indus script is still not deciphered, it is difficult to surmise whether the other goddesses (represented by the Indus Valley female figurines) gave birth, so to speak, to the Vedic goddesses. In the early Vedic period, the goddesses were without distinctive attributes and vahanas.
In spite of their lesser importance, the goddesses were respected and worshipped. Famous among them was Saraswati, originally a river but who was given the status of Goddess of Vac (speech). During that period, not only the river but forests were considered deities and are invoked in the Rig Vedic hymns. The growth of agriculture too gave birth to a goddess, Sita, who was personification of the furrow. Sometimes Sita is called the wife of Indra because Indra was the God of Agriculture (JDawson 1950: 48 fn). Alongside, the Vedic people considered Night (Raka) and Dawn (Usha) goddesses. Whereas Gungu, Kuhu and Sinivali, were only considered beneficent deities, their roles being to grant wealth and sons (J Dawson 1950:48-49).
Some goddesses such as Indrani, Varunani, Agnayi are mentioned innumerable times mainly because of their husbands, Indra, Varun and Agni. Rudra’s wife is mentioned by the name Rudrani. The only exception is Aditi who is the Mother of all Gods. A hymn from the Rig Veda goes like this:
Aditi is the heaven; Aditi is the atmosphere
Aditi is mother, she is father, she is one
Aditi is all the gods and the five sorts of beings
Aditi is that which is born; Aditi is that which is to be born;
(Jean Przylusk. 1985: 412-413).
The Rig Veda (126.96.36.199) invokes Indrani, Varunanai, and Agnayi as consorts of warriors and says they have “wings”. According to PK Agrawala (1984:66) this feature takes them to the level of mother goddesses. Among other goddesses of the period are Surya, Saranyu, Rodasi, Milhusi, Shachi and others. Shachi was known as Indrani after her marriage to Indra.
In the later Vedic tradition, the goddesses began to acquire definite names, characters and attributes. Most famous of them were Aditi, Usha, Prachi, Indrani and many more. According to some scholars, goddesses like Prithvi, Sinivali, Aditi and Saraswati attained their rightful place in the later Vedic pantheon. During the Rig Veda as also the Atharva Veda period, the images of these goddesses were more or less abstract. Much later did they develop definite images and attributes; some however lost their identity (like Sinivali) or their importance (like Aditi) or merged into some other goddess. While others grew more popular – lasting upto current times – prominently, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Indrani...
Mothers are for Certain
In the Mahabharata, there is the story of Vrihaspati, Tara and Chandra. Chandra was smitten by Tara’s beauty but she was Vrihaspati’s wife. Chandra however coaxed Tara into eloping with him. Vrihaspati asked all the gods to help him get Tara back but they did not succeed. At last Brahma intervened and ordered Tara to return. Meanwhile Tara realised she was pregnant. She was then questioned so as to ascertain the child’s father – who it turned out was Chandra. So while people may not be sure of the father, the mothers’ role was beyond doubt. Hence the centrality of the mother figure.
Read more: The mother of all goddesses
The concept of the Mother Goddess remained the same from Vedic times to historical times. Reverence for Mother goddesses sprang from women’s fertility and a seemingly magical ability to give birth to children so, as such, these deities were connected not only to humans but also to animals, agriculture, nature and every living being. They feature in Indus seals too… a nude female figure is depicted sitting in the uttanpada position with legs placed apart and a plant issuing from her womb. Indeed, all living and existing things are emanations of the Great Goddess. She is the mother of not only all human beings but also of animals, birds, snakes and waterborne creatures.
First Published: Apr 01, 2017 00:20 IST